What is Education For?

I was originally employed at Brookes to work on the Secondary PGCE programme, but over the years my teaching timetable has moved somewhat and this is now the second year in which I haven’t had any direct teaching on the programme, although I do have some responsibility for it. I am very pleased, therefore, to have been invited to talk to the cohort at the end their first week on the subject of ‘What is Education For?’

My colleagues understand my work and will therefore be expecting a philosophical discussion of this question. But I’m keen to offer the students something that will be relevant to them in their first week on the course and that will hopefully provide a useful context for their reflection over the coming year. Thoughts on the following, therefore, are warmly welcomed: there is still time to fix this if readers don’t think I am going to achieve my aim.

I think my main concern about the discourse of education and schooling at present is the tendency to see the role of the teacher as a relatively unproblematic job of work. There is something that needs to be known, and teachers need to convey, transmit, or otherwise help their students to acquire that object. The task of teacher education programmes, according to this understanding, is to furnish student teachers with tried and tested methods for achieving that outcome, or to provide access to the best cutting edge research that introduces new processes or procedures into the classroom or evaluates entrenched ones. So we know what we need to do, let’s get on and find out ‘what works’ and do the best by our students.

There are a few problems with this standpoint, but the one I’m most concerned with is the assumption that we are all pretty much agreed on what it is we’re trying to do. The pressing educational debates of the moment tend not, in fact, to be debates about the most effective way to achieve a particular outcome (although they are often portrayed that way), so much as debates between competing understandings of what we are trying to achieve through the educational endeavour. I’m going to go on to give some examples, but I’ll just assert for now that the questions that are seeing a lot of media coverage at the moment – about whether we should set by ability, how we should manage behaviour, and what should go on the curriculum – are motivated only secondarily by disagreement about what the research is showing us, and primarily by some pretty deep-seated divisions about what education is for, which ultimately come down to differing perspectives about what constitutes worthwhile human activity, or about what kinds of things are desirable or ‘good’ for human existence. These are questions that have troubled philosophers for quite a long time, and have – throughout all of their development in the western world, at least since Plato – been considered not only in the abstract but also in close connection with their educational implications.

I’m not saying that all teachers need to be philosophers, but I would urge that it is right and proper that teacher education programmes leave plenty of space for dialogue around what is worthwhile and good in human life, and the educational implications of this. If we disagree fundamentally about what we are trying to achieve in the classroom, then no amount of scrutiny of the evidence is going to lead to any sort of resolution of these big educational debates.

This point of view has come in for a lot of stick. The ‘theoretical’ components of teacher education have often been characterised at best as a waste of time, or as subversive, and at worst as lacking in intellectual integrity. Our last Secretary of State for Education used the terms ‘enemies of promise’ and even ‘the blob’ to characterise those working in university departments of education on questions in sociology, say, or philosophy, where they ought to have been conducting randomised control trials into effective teaching methods.

I know from experience that the start of a teacher education course is a good time to talk about social justice, social mobility, the value of qualifications, and so on. I enjoy hearing the animated, vocational terms in which most students will express their decision to become a teacher. Many identify, in fact, with children who struggled at school, and want to provide opportunities to students from all kinds of backgrounds to make the best of their lives. Others will identify with that teacher who opened up some wider awareness for them, or kindled a lifelong passion for their chosen subject, and want to pass on that passion to the younger generation. Still others will identify education as a powerful force for social change, and will themselves be prepared to entertain the possibility that schooling might need to change in some fundamental respects if that end is to be achieved. (I know, I know, it’s a job, too. We’d none of us do it if we didn’t get paid, right?)

But I also know about the pressures and demands of what is normally a year-long induction into the teaching profession. Students embark on school placements. Timetables swiftly fill up. Somehow there isn’t time in the staff room for the kind of philosophical or political discussions students enjoyed in the refectory on campus. In this kind of context, it’s easy to accept that teaching is relatively unproblematic in its aims. The difficulty is doing it. It’s hard, there’s lots to learn in a short space of time, then there are evidence files that need to be kept up, and university assignments. When students return to university, there are a host of immediate problems that need to be resolved. Those of us who continue to insist on dialogue into the aims of purposes of this endeavour begin to look more like the enemies of promise we have been portrayed as, or worse, enemies of successful development toward the teaching standards.

So this is my plug for continued philosophical exploration into the aims and nature of education, teaching, and schooling. I don’t really think it is incompatible with developing in line with the standards, of course; I’m convinced that a teacher who is prepared to engage with other professionals around these big questions of the meaning and purpose of education is going to be a better teacher for it, and will certainly be better prepared to engage in discussion about what the evidence tells us about how best to teach.

I’ll start with curriculum. We can’t teach students everything. We must privilege some things and not others. The question about what it is worthwhile for us to teach in school is value-laden. What constitutes important knowledge (and let’s use that term loosely for now) is publicly contested and there is not widespread consensus.

If we decide that the aim of education is simply certification – i.e. we want to enable students to get good qualifications so that they can get good jobs – then the question of what we ought to teach is easy to settle. We teach what is on the exam specification. Certainly, having a job and the ability to support oneself and – if desired – a family is an important element of worthwhile human living. It’s hard to imagine doing anything else worthwhile without it. But it’s also easy to see that gaining or providing qualifications can’t be the only aim of education. There would be some interesting implications if it was: we would be justified, firstly, in teaching whatever was on the curriculum, and furthermore the content of the curriculum would be arbitrary. In fact, we expect qualifications to map to outcomes that are worthwhile for other reasons, which throws us back to the question of what kinds of educational outcomes are worthwhile.

We could make a wider argument based on the need for economic prosperity on a national scale. Certain understandings of the material world are useful to industry, and the capacity to engage rigorously in certain kinds of scientific enquiry is essential if we wish to make technological innovations and keep pace with our competitors on the global scene. It is sometimes claimed that it is relatively easy to establish what these understandings and capacities would be. This is the kind of argument that is often made for the importance to the curriculum of what are called the STEM subjects. One colleague in the philosophy department here at Brookes makes a similar argument and (surprisingly, you would think, since it indicts his own subject among others) would relegate the teaching of arts subjects to the spare spaces in education – a useful embellishment, but easily jettisoned in favour of the work of passing on the capacity to keep pace with scientific change. I don’t agree with this. I would point students to the work of the philosopher Martha Nussbaum, who makes a profoundly unsettling survey of those moments in human history where economic prosperity seems to entail maintaining significant inequalities in society in terms of wealth, quality of life or human dignity. In such cases, it is only our ability to identify with those who have become demeaned and downtrodden, and to see their call on society’s resources as equivalent to our own, that can hope to prevent us from sacrificing their needs in favour of great economic prosperity for the privileged few, and to resist justifying rhetorics that would urge the poor to sacrifice their own interests for the good of the nation as a whole. It is the practice and appreciation of the arts, Nussbaum argues, that fosters this kind of empathy in human societies.

Our last Secretary of State for Education liked to link education with social mobility. He pointed to his own story as a bright child from humble beginnings who, well-served by a good school, was able to achieve the dizzying heights of public office. The aim here is laudable: education ought to enable children to break out of inherited cycles of deprivation and achieve prosperity and comfort where their parents and ancestors did not. But another rhetoric sometimes becomes intermingled with the Coalition’s arguments on this, which is the language of merit due to academic ability.  The Prime Minister has justified setting by ability, even in primary schools, so that the ‘brightest’ children can work at the speed they need to go. This hearkens back at least to Plato. You might be familiar with Plato’s account of schooling in which the primary aim is to identify those children with the moral and intellectual capacity to rule the city, so that they can be separated off and given the rigorous training they need. So schooling enables educators to identify bronze, silver and gold children and direct them toward the social function that best fits them. What is often forgotten is that social mobility is key to Plato’s account. If social position was justifiably inherited, then we wouldn’t need education. Gold parents would give birth to gold offspring, and the social order would be maintained. Schooling is important because gold parents can give birth to bronze children, who need to be sent off to the fields where they are best suited. And vice versa, I suppose. The child’s function in society is innate, not inherited. The problem with all of this is that educators from all sorts of disciplines have questioned the construction of innate ability. Furthermore, unless all students have access to social mobility, it is hard to see how these kind of arguments don’t just collapse into the kind of three tiered sorting house system the UK had after the second world war, where only those who have been identified as brighter seem to get access to possibilities for social and economic transformation. Some social commentators are urging that this is precisely what is happening with the Coalition’s proliferation of school designations.

The sociologist Michael Young has made an argument for what he calls ‘powerful knowledge’. This kind of knowledge is not to be construed as a narrow list of facts, but rather the shared understanding of certain communities of enquiry that we recognise as academic disciplines. This knowledge would enable a form of social improvement that doesn’t depend on ability but rests on providing students with ‘epistemic access’ to resources with the power to make significant changes in their lives. He has a new book coming out that is intended to elaborate his position for students on ITE courses and I would urge you to read it. I am certainly looking forward to seeing how the argument develops.

It seems to me that there are all sorts of questions we could ask about epistemic access, not least exactly what we are to think of it as access to.

Whenever I suggest that this might mean epistemic access to the truth, I encounter raised eyebrows. What good is the truth? I want a job. I would argue that getting to the truth about things is a powerful force for social emancipation, but the denigration of the language of truth in education departments is, lamentably, one of our ‘blobbier’ traits. Still, I think this is the most fruitful way of thinking about what might be meant by epistemic access.

This could also mean epistemic access to qualification. The disciplines have their home in universities, and university qualifications lead to the sweetest jobs, so perhaps schools ought to mirror universities so that students have the best chance of going on to university and doing well there. I have argued above that this would be an impoverished way of looking at the aims of education, but I think it does sometimes get mixed up in the language of powerful knowledge, particularly as it has been taken up in places by Gove.

Another way of thinking about powerful knowledge would be to think of it as knowledge that is shared with those in power, and thus an instrumentally necessary acquisition for anyone who wishes to move amongst them. In a caricatured sense, we might think here of certain cultural goods: the ability to pick up a Shakespearean reference, to know good wine from bad, to understand a Latin phrase.

A colleague with whom I previously worked on the PGCE, Dr Robert Legg, has made an interesting study into how the latter kind of powerful knowledge became enshrined on English A Level music exam specifications. The predominance on music syllabuses of a narrow canon of classical composers had the outcome of favouring, in terms of A level success, students from a particular socio-economic background who would already be familiar with these composers. Their parents had handed on that cultural capital. Success in music examinations, and further life possibilities that such success might open up, look in a context like this to be a closed club populated by a particular socio-economic stratum of society. Now, what we do with this information depends on what our understanding of powerful knowledge should be.

We could try to get everyone into the club, as it were, by teaching that classical canon really hard, so that we could somehow overcome the advantage of those students who had the cultural capital. Or (and I think this is Legg’s suggestion) we could blow the club wide open by dropping its entrance requirements, and incorporating into the music specification sufficient popular and contemporary music that the advantage effectively disappears, and there is now equal access to the top grades regardless of social background. If our understanding of the aim here is to get students to university, then this is a no brainer: this will help students get the top grades regardless of cultural capital. But this rather assumes that the canon was only ever valuable because it was favoured by an educated elite. What if, on the other hand, there is such a thing as great art, and some artworks are worthy of more attention because of their timeless capacity to provoke human thought? Then it would seem that we do in fact have a duty to attempt to induct students of all backgrounds into the appreciation of such works, however difficult that might be.

Again we find ourselves thrown back into age old philosophical questions about what is worthwhile and desirable in human existence.

If I get time, I might also touch on the setting by ability debate. I might point out that the jury is really out, evidence-wise, except that setting can be shown perhaps to favour a small minority of more able students. One correlation that is pretty hard to deny where setting occurs, however, is that between the sets into which students tend to be put and certain socio-economic aspects of their background. All things being equal, poorer students tend to be in bottom sets. What would happen to our thinking on setting if, instead of relying on what ‘every parent knows’, we started with some sort of educational aim to promote social cohesion through the constitution of school classes?

I might also discuss the deep and troubling ethical questions that underpin differing approaches to ‘behaviour management’, but that is really for another post. It also looks like I will have to reserve discussion of the moral development of children, or the fostering of ‘Fundamental British values’, for another occasion. Perhaps if they ask me back…


Listen to Dr Legg’s comments here.


Thanks are due to Upkar Singh, Senior Lecturer in Maths at Newman University College, for the following studies on setting by ability and social inequality:

Boaler, J., Wiliam, D. & Brown, M. L. (2000) Students‟ experiences of ability grouping – disaffection, polarisation and the construction of failure British Educational Research Journal, Vol. 26, No.5, pp.631-648.

DfES (2005b) The Effects of Pupil Grouping: Literature Review (Research Report No.688). London: Her Majesty‟s Stationery Office (HMSO)

Sukhnandan, L. & Lee, B. (1998) Streaming, setting and grouping by ability: a review of literature Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research

Phonics is not a fix-all drug that will get all children reading

How can there be such high profile disagreement about an issue as extensively researched and important as the teaching of reading to young children? In July, a group of teachers and phonics consultants wrote to the Times Educational Supplement, defending the Year One phonics check – a test given to all five year olds to examine their ability to decode unfamiliar words. This was in a response to an earlier letter from teachers, academics and representatives of teaching unions who had called for its abolition.

The reason for this disagreement lies not so much in the difficulty or inaccessibility of the research but in some widespread assumptions about the kind of evidence that should inform teaching.

The department for education currently promotes a model of “rigorous” educational research that draws on the use of evidence to inform practice in other sectors, most notably medicine. But rather than helping to select the best possible educational methods, this search for evidence forces educational activity to follow the model of the medical “intervention”.

There are many critics of the department for education’s guidance on teaching phonics. None of them denies that some of the advice has a place in the early teaching of reading.

Teaching the regular “phonic” correspondence between letters or groups of letters and particular sounds, as well as the process of blending these sounds from left to right to form whole word units, has been acknowledged as part of good educational practice.

But viewed as one of a range of approaches to learning to read, phonics cannot be pinpointed as a discrete “intervention”, and therefore as the “best” reading intervention from a range of options.

Teachers go off script

An intervention has distinct properties which can be reproduced across contexts. It can be given to one group and withheld from another – the core principle of the “control” in the randomised control trial. It has a beginning and an end so that its effects can be measured. The obvious example is a course of a drug, which has a particular quantity, regularity, and chemical composition.

But the problem with transferring evidence-based practice to the educational context is that teachers do not teach through interventions. The interactions between teachers and pupils cannot be broken up into the kinds of discrete activities tested through a randomised control trial.

The only way an educational activity could be given to one group and withheld from another, have a beginning and an end so that its effects could be measured, and then be effectively reproduced, is if the activity could be restricted to a script or reduced to a resource (such as a book or a film). The teacher would have to stick heavily to the script in order for the intervention’s effects to be measured against those pupils who didn’t get taught that way.

But any teacher who has tried to follow a lesson plan knows that classroom interaction cannot be captured in scripted activity. A teacher’s duty to continually monitor the progress of students as they learn means they will be constantly be making decisions in the moment about how to re-phrase questions, encourage particular individuals in their learning, or make use of additional examples. They need to go off script.

Too many eggs in one basket

The government’s guidance on phonics is a case in point. It emphasises the introduction of the “first and fast” principle – that in the earliest stages, phonics is to be taught exclusively as the way children read. The introduction of other reading strategies, such as inferring the word from narrative context, or using other clues such as pictures, are determined to be counter-productive to the aim of developing phonic knowledge.

Schools are encouraged to select from a range of available commercial programmes, each of which adhere to core phonic principles set out by the department for education. The guidance implies these programmes will have most value if, like a course of antibiotics, they are seen through to completion without detrimental interaction with other programmes.

Building on this, the year one phonics check is designed – with its incorporation of nonsense-words and words out of meaningful context – to explicitly rule out the possibility that students are employing other strategies.

The result of this, as the first open letter claimed, is that the phonics check tests the application of the intervention rather than its intended result: literacy.

It is easy to see how interventions like these are attractive at a policy level – particularly for those who see widespread problems with poor literacy as an epidemic that governments should be able to cure. But the question remains whether evidence has supported the identification of the best method to teach reading, or whether the desire for an evidence-based solution has forced that solution to take on the character of an intervention.

I believe that teachers are rarely concerned with employing an intervention, far less the “best” one. They are more often concerned with judging how to go on with a particular student, or what to do with a particular student at a particular time.

This is not to say that a teacher’s practice and the learning of his or her students are not enriched through a career-long interaction with the educational research community, as found by a recent enquiry.

The department for education has a responsibility to ensure education research is directed to areas of pressing concern and that this research is made available to teachers. But, the result of identifying and endorsing particular interventions through policy, in the manner of the phonics check, is the homogenisation of teachers, students and their classroom situations.

This will come at the expense of teachers’ freedom to use their practical and professional wisdom to make informed decisions about the best ways to respond to the needs of individual students.

David Aldridge

Principal Lecturer in Philosophy of Education at Oxford Brookes University

This is a post I originally wrote for The Conversation. They allowed me to reproduce it and you can find the original here.